Amateur Theatricals in Rokiskis, Lithuania

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz 

One of the magical things about photographs is that they give us a window into a world we may never have dreamed of seeing or even knowing.  Recently, I received several such photographs which had been kept by Samuil Meller, who had been born in Klaipeda, but had lived in Rokiskis, Lithuania with his family

The photographs had stayed with him during the internment and liberation of his family in Siberia during World War II and thence to Israel and finally to America.  They pictured a life in Rokiskis which was torn asunder in 1941 and which was never to be again.

Many of the Jewish community in Rokiskis were not very different from their counterparts around the world.  They lived in a moderately prosperous market town, they were mainly engaged in commercial livelihoods and they participated in religious, social, political and sports activities.

They also had an over-riding love for the Jewish homeland, Palestine, and the Zionist cause.  This manifested itself in activities such as “hachsharim” to assist individuals make aliyah as well as events tailored to raise money for the “promised land”.  Those with enough means made contributions to the Jewish Colonial Trust.

One of the creative ways in which people raised money for Palestine was by putting on Yiddish amateur theatricals.  Jews have always been interested in the theater.  However, it was not until the blossoming of the Yiddish theater in the mid-1800’s and into the 1900’s, that huge audiences of adoring fans were created.  The love of the Yiddish theater existed not only in the big cities such as Vilna, where there were professional as well as amateur troupes, but in smaller shtetls as well.

The shtetl of Rokiskis was no different and the photo below depicts one such Yiddish theatrical put on for the benefit of raising funds for Palestine.  Unfortunately, the name of the production has been lost, but the name of two of the players has survived.

The woman standing at far left is Yacha Levitan Meller, the wife of Yudel Meller, and the man standing at the top right is Yudel Meller, an uncle of Samuil Meller.  Yudel Meller was the co-owner with his brothers Shmuel, Mordechai, and Khona of a business which encompassed a printery, a paperboard factory and a saccharin tablet factory.  In addition, the family was involved in the Meller Candy factory in Rokiskis.  A fifth brother Moishe-Leib Meller left the family business prior to 1914 and went to America where contact was lost with him. 

1930’s Amateur Theatricals
Rokiskis, Lithuania
As an aside, Rokiskis was known for its candies.  There were, at least, five candy factories, all owned by Jews.  These produced enough sweet treats for the shtetl as well as those further a field.  The factories and their confections were:  Avanti (Svajone candies), Meilute (Gracija and Mandarinas candies), Melesa (candy names unknown), Meller (Karvute toffee candies) and Reno (LoLo candies).
Meller Candy Factory
Rokiskis, Lithuania, 1930
(Center Left to Right, Co-Owners Shmuel-Wolf and Mordechai Meller)

One can almost see the theatrical-goers munching on these lovely bits of sweetness as they watched the excitement of the plays which sometimes featured old Yiddish favorites or even Shakespeare.

Not only did adults participate in amateur theatricals, but children also were given the opportunity to “tread the boards” and offer their talent to fond parents, relatives and friends.  Their theatricals were based on Jewish stories and legends and, very often, occurred at Purim time.   

A 1930’s Rokiskis Children’s Purim Spiel

Sometimes, the costumes for these theatricals were just thrown together depending on the circumstances of the people involved.  However, they could be quite elaborate and distinctive depending on whether the money for fabric and volunteers to tailor the garments were available.

In the following photo, Yacha Levitan Meller and a fellow actress are dressed in their best handmade finery for a theatrical production.  Note their elaborate tiaras, sequins on their gossamer dresses and their satin ballet shoes.  As far as we know, they are just two Jewish fairies, who have alighted for a while in a dream world of long ago, gossiping a bit and sharing secrets, before continuing on.
Amateur Theatricals, Rokiskis, Lithuania
Yacha Levitan Meller (left) and Fellow Actress

Another photograph of the amateur theatrical put on for the benefit of raising money for Palestine is shown below.  Here you see more inventive costumes of the leading players.  The woman standing at the top right is Yacha Levitan Meller and to the right of her is her friend who was also shown in the photo above.  The other two players are not known.

Amateur Theatricals, Rokiskis, Lithuania
Yacha Levitan Meller (top left) and Fellow Actors
Much of what we know of our ancestors in “der heim” is from stories they passed onto us and, more recently, the photographs they left behind.  It is so important to preserve these photos and be sure that the names of the people in the pictures are identified and the place and date the photos were taken be determined.

Also, it is important to identify the photographer who took the picture.  Very often the photos have a photographer’s stamp which identifies them and the location of their studio.  The photos in this article were taken by one of the three Jewish photographers in Rokiskis:  R. Rucho (Rachmiel Ruch) who owned the “Renesans” photography studio, L. Vinokuro (Leiba Vinokur) and Chanan Sneiderman.

Anyone who is interested in viewing additional photographs from Rokiskis, please visit the Rokiskis ShtetLink Site on JewishGen.

1 comment:

  1. The plural of Hachsharah הכשרה is Hachsharot הכשרות


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